Riders in the Sky perform March 29
With names like Too Slim, Ranger Doug, Woody Paul and Joey the CowPolka King, it's not too surprising to discover that the musical quartet known as Riders in the Sky intersperses quite a bit of comedy into their performances.
And it's a formula that's worked for more than three decades, according to Doug.
"We're entertaining others and keeping alive a great American tradition at the same time," he said in a telephone interview Thursday.
Detroit Lakes audiences will have an opportunity to experience the group's unique stage show for themselves on Saturday, March 29, when the quartet brings their Grammy Award-winning music to the stage of the Historic Holmes Theatre for a one-night-only show, starting at 7:30 p.m.
Doug and Too Slim founded Riders in the Sky "way back in 1977."
"It just seemed to us that a wonderful piece of American music and cultural history was disappearing -- and that is the music of the singing cowboys," Doug said. "It's beautiful, romantic music that's complicated enough to really interest you as a musician. The lyrics are about something other than feeling sorry for yourself and broken hearts."
Though the art form has been around for as long as there have been cowboys riding the range, its heyday came in the 1940s, when singing cowboys such as Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry brought their music to the silver screen.
"Nearly every (movie) studio had their own singing cowboy --only MGM dropped the ball," Doug said jokingly. "It was a national phenomenon for a while, and that's where the heart of our style came from."
But as westerns and singing cowboys went the way of silent movies -- a fate much lamented by the Statler Brothers in their 1970s hit, "Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott" -- their music seemed destined to meet the same fate.
Until Riders in the Sky stepped in and brought their quartet of singing cowboys to a new medium -- the concert stage.
"We had a mission to try to keep that music alive," Doug said. "But primarily, we were just having fun, and the audience sensed that. It just sort of built up on us. People kept coming back to see us."
Thirty-odd years later, they're still going strong. And while the lineup did see a couple of personnel changes in the early years, the current quartet has been intact for more than a decade now, Doug said.
"We've been very consistent, with the same guys and the same sound," he added. "We have four members, who play accordion, guitar, fiddle and bass. We kept true to the foundations of the style, like the Sons of the Pioneers and Riders of the Purple Stage who were so big in the 1940s."
But it's the humor that permeates their stage performances that has kept the group together for so long, Doug believes.
"That's why we've stayed together so long," he said. "The music, of course, has enormous value and lasting importance, but I think we wouldn't have had a career this long and full without being funny.
"We like to engage the audience, and people like to see grown men having so much fun on stage."
If you focus too much on the historical significance of the music, you forget the fact that "having fun has always played a big part in it," he added.
Though this will be the quartet's first visit to Detroit Lakes, "we've played every state in our 30 years together," Doug said. "Minnesota has been a very good state for us, we're happy to be coming back. We played the old Fergus theater many times, as well as in Fargo and Wahpeton, N.D. We just played with the Duluth symphony last month."
In fact, the group has had great success with playing their music in concert with local symphonies.
"We've played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl twice," he said. "It doesn't get much bigger than that.
"We played with the San Antonio Symphony last month, and with the Boston Pops last May... it's a lovely fit, because the music is so sweeping and complex. It's not like a three-chord folk song."
The group has also recorded numerous albums together, combining the traditional cowboy songs with classics from the movie era, and writing about a third of their material themselves.
"We felt from the start that we didn't just want to be a museum piece -- we wanted to keep the tradition going, and add to it if we could," Doug explained.
At least one of the songs the quartet sings will be very familiar to younger audiences -- Riders in the Sky recorded "Woody's Roundup," the theme for Woody the Cowboy that was used in the Disney cartoon classic, "Toy Story II."
"Randy Newman wrote it, as he wrote all the music for the movie, but when they decided they wanted an authentic western sound, they called us," said Doug, noting that one of the producers of the movie was a fan of their music.
Since then, Riders in the Sky has recorded two albums for Disney, including "Woody's Roundup," a companion album to the "Toy Story II" soundtrack, and "Monsters Inc. -- Scream Factory Favorites," which also had a movie tie-in.
"We were fortunate enough to win Grammys for both of them," Doug said.
"It's great to have those avenues for our music -- there's really no western music station, and we don't do top 40 country," he continued. "We have to keep developing new and interesting ways of being viable, while still being true to our style."
Bringing their music to younger audiences has resulted in a unique phenomenon -- they had one man tell them after a show that he had been sitting between his grandfather and his son, and both of them were big fans of the group.
"The kids grow up and bring their own families to the show," Doug said. "It's become a family tradition for them."
Their stage shows typically last about two hours, with an intermission between hour-long sets.
"We just sing a lot of songs of the west, both original material and classic, with a lot of funny business interspersed between them," Doug said. "Part of the joy of doing a live show is the interacting with the audience -- making them sad one moment, and making them laugh the next."
Tickets for the March 29 Riders in the Sky show are $25 for adults, $12.50 for students, and may be purchased online at www.dlccc.org, by phone at 218-844-SHOW (7469), or by visiting the Historic Holmes Theatre Box Office at 826 Summit Ave., Detroit Lakes (hours are 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Monday through Friday).